When thinking of Indian food, the two words that instinctively float to an American’s mind (or any Westerner, for that matter) are “spices” and “curry.”
75-year-old Mavis Parker is a dyed-in-the-wool Midwesterner from Brookings, South Dakota, who’s never been exposed to Indian food. 38-year-old Matthew McClelland, on the other hand, is a cosmopolitan New Yorker, who often eats it.
Still, they share a similar perception about Indian cuisine. They both associate it with its piquancy, as emblematized by the “curry.”
There’s a section in Manhattan—where First Avenue intersects with East Sixth Street—that has such a high density of Indian restaurants that it’s been christened the “Curry Row.”
Sure, it’s impossible to think of a well-stocked Indian kitchen without its jars of spices. But it’s hardly fair to paint an entire nation’s culinary tradition—and that too, one as large and diverse as India’s—with one spicy stroke.
The South Asian giant boasts a rich, eclectic culinary heritage that has a 5,000-year-old history, with roots that spread from Portugal to Persia.
The capital city of the most populous Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow (formerly known as Avadh), located on the banks of the River Gomati and roughly 300 miles northeast of New Delhi, is also the home of the famed “Avadhi” cuisine that goes back to the resplendent era of the nawabs.
The nawabs were provincial governors, dispatched by Mughal emperors around 1720 A.D., for the efficient and easy administration of an unwieldy Islamic empire in the days of pre-British India.
Just as 16th century Florence flourished under the Medicis, so did Avadh under the nawabs, witnessing a creative efflorescence in art, music, architecture, and food. Known for their supreme hedonism, refined palates, and opulent lifestyle, they were epicureans par excellence.
Their patronage vaulted food to a sophisticated art form. They vied with each other to hire the best bawarchis or rakabdars (chefs) in the land. The bawarchi khana (kitchen)—oftentimes more than one—occupied the place of pride in the royal palace.
The imperial cooks of the fourth nawab of Lucknow, Asaf-ud-Daula (1775-1797) are credited with the creation of the dum pukht style of cooking.
According to legend, it came to be inducted into the regal carte du jour at a time of famine and unemployment. The nawab came up with a quirky idea to help his people with jobs.
He commissioned the building of a massive monument, with the proviso that one fourth of the structure that was built during the day would be demolished by night. This would ensure an uninterrupted supply of work round-the-clock.
To keep the laborers fed 24/7, big meals were cooked in large, airtight cauldrons, filled with meat, vegetables, rice, herbs, and spices. The nawab, who happened to be strolling by one day, was so seduced by the aroma wafting from an open container that he ordered the dish to be perfected for the royal dining table.
Unlike most Indian dishes, dum pukht (which translates in Persian as “breathe in” (dum) and “cook” (pukht) is known for its delicate spicing, robust flavors, and subtle taste.
The meal is slow-cooked in a burnt sienna, round, earthen cooking pot called a handi that’s typically sealed with a lid, made of dough, to prevent the flavors from escaping.
The uniqueness of the technique lies in cooking the food from both above and below. While pellets of smoldering charcoal are placed on top, the handi is also heated from beneath. The absence of a direct flame allows the food to cook gradually in its natural juices, retaining its nutrients, while also suffusing it with an appetizing aroma.
Lucknow’s glorious past endures till this day. But one doesn’t have to travel so far to get a taste of dum pukht.
Though there aren’t any restaurants in the U.S. that cater exclusively to dum pukht, Banjara—located at 97 First Avenue in New York City—offers four dum pukht dishes: preparations of chicken, lamb, shrimp, and vegetable.
Heritage India—a brasserie and lounge at 2400 Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C.—has one dum pukht item on its menu—a rice delicacy, biryani dum pukht (long-grain rice, mixed with meat or vegetables) that’s similar to the Spanish paella.
For the epicurean tourist, in search of some truly Oriental princely fare, a visit to the renowned Dum Pukht restaurant at the ITC Maurya Sheraton hotel, in New Delhi—touted to be one of the best places in Asia for sampling dum pukht—is a must.
Chef Ghulam Mohammed Qureshi—a descendant of the royal cooks of the Avadh nawabs—has reinvented the cuisine for the modern palate, said Dharamvir Singh, its manager, in a telephone interview.
The kakori kebab (finely minced mutton, cloves, and cinnamon, drizzled with saffron), served with an accompaniment of mildly-sweet rice, specially prepared in an iron oven, is the jewel of the 43-item menu that, literally, melts in the mouth.
Other must-haves include the raan-e-dum pukht (a leg of mutton, marinated in dark rum and stuffed with onions, cheese, and mint) and jhinga dum Qureshi (prawn kebabs that are Qureshi’s special creation.)